Still Southern After All These Years
Roy Blount, Jr.’s essays and books of wry observations slice reality into more amusingly diverse shapes than a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. When not defending his fellow Southerners (Blount grew up in Georgia), he turns that much-maligned chunk of America known as the Deep South into a cultural punching bag for the amusement of Yankees everywhere, even while launching hilarious tirades against the North for its ignorance concerning Dixie.
Currently heard on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” Blount first achieved notoriety when he followed the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost a year to write the book Three Bricks Shy of a Load in 1974. Periodically, his barbed-wire embrace of the South gets him wrongly lumped in with Lewis Grizzard, the late redneck humorist who harvested acres of corn-pone jokes, apparently willed to comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Blount writes, “I have been referred to as ‘the thinking man’s Lewis Grizzard’—a description that nearly eliminates every possible market.” Blount adds that Grizzard’s best-selling humor books are “to Southern humor as foot-long pecan rolls are to Southern cuisine.”
In his latest book, Blount recalls the arrival of Krispy Kreme donuts in New York City several years ago: “At a grocery store on the Upper West Side called Gourmet Garage, I came upon a tray full of cold Krispy Kremes for sale beneath a sign that said FRESH FROM THE ANTE-BELLUM SOUTH. ‘Well, now,’ I said to the man behind the counter. ‘They can’t be any too fresh . . . I mean, if they date back to circa 1859.’”
Blount will give a lecture and sign copies of his latest book, Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South at the McWane Center at 6:30 p.m. on June 12. The event will benefit 90.3 WBHM. Call 870-4242 for details.
Black & White: When I was younger, Southern stereotypes, as portrayed in Hollywood or books, sort of bothered me. Now that I’m older, I get a perverse pleasure out of insulting perceptions of the South.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” always sort of bothered me. But I always enjoyed “Hee Haw”—well, not every minute of it. There’s a piece in my book about the difference between Nashville, which is supposed to be a great movie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, even though there are all sorts of broad stereotypes, because it seemed to be appreciative. And also the music was really good. Whereas in Nashville, the music was written by the damn actors, and Robert Altman didn’t seem to care anything about what Nashville was really like.
Any thoughts on the Confederate flag?
I get a lot of questions about the Confederate flag. It’s crazy to have a flag that divides people of the region along racial lines. So I suggested a new Southern flag that would be half green for “money” and half blue for “the blues.” And sort of a dark brown male-looking hand and a tan male-looking hand, and the same thing with (two) female hands, and they would all be doing what flags do, which is wave. And the slogan underneath would be “Just fine. And you?” It would be a lot friendlier flag.
What’s your opinion of Don Imus?
I didn’t like Don Imus. I was not sorry to see him go. I never did appear on his show. He always just seemed, to me, to be pushing the envelope to no good end . . . I used to drive my kids to school and we used to listen to him, and none of us liked him. It seemed to me he was trying to be cooler than he was. And you just don’t say “Nappy-headed ho’s.” I wouldn’t say it in private, much less on the radio . . . or say it by accident (laughs).
How did you come to follow the Pittsburgh Steelers for Three Bricks Shy of a Load?
I was working at Sports Illustrated and one day the managing editor summoned me to the bar where a bunch of [writers and editors] would sit around at lunchtime—and after work—and drink. And they came up with the notion that somebody on the staff should spend a year with a football team and write a book . . . I had just gotten divorced and I was sort of at loose ends and I had covered the [Pittsburgh] Pirates a lot, and, also, I had done a story about the Rooney family, who owned the Steelers. [Sports Illustrated] wanted me to do the L.A. Rams or the Jets or some famous team, but I had the sense that Pittsburgh would be the place to go. So I said I’d do it if I could do it in Pittsburgh.
What was your reception like among the players?
I think it was better than it would have been in L.A. or New York, because the Steelers hadn’t been covered all that much at that time. This was the 1973 season . . . I really had that team nailed. I knew everybody on the team and the hangers-on and the coaches and scouts. It was a great way to see a cross-section of American life.
I read you were unhappy when introduced once at a humor-writing seminar as “the world’s most sophisticated redneck.”
I don’t think people ought to throw around the word “redneck” the way they do. People from the North don’t seem to realize that there is anything potentially insulting about it. If I were more of a redneck, it would be one thing, but I don’t even have a dog. I’d like to have one. I have had many dogs, but at the moment I don’t have one . . . The “introducer” didn’t know what a redneck was . . . And I’m not all that sophisticated. It was condescending without realizing it was condescending. The taxonomy was all screwed up (laughs).
Was Lewis Grizzard a sophisticated redneck?
Well, he did cocaine and wore loafers without any socks (laughs). In those two respects, he was more sophisticated than I.
Do you still eat Krispy Kreme donuts?
I remember loving them, and I will eat one occasionally. I used to eat half a dozen. Now I think I would die if I ate three. But I nostalgically eat one every now and then. I still think they’re a lot better than Dunkin’ Donuts. At least when they’re hot. I was disillusioned when I was bringing my wife to taste a hot Krispy Kreme for the first time. And the “Hot Now” sign was blinking at this Krispy Kreme store [in New York City]. I went in and they weren’t hot. I said, “You got you’re ‘Hot Now’ light blinking.” And he said, “Well, the manager said to keep that blinking all the time.” And it just broke my heart. You can’t do that.
Chef Frank Stitt was on “The Martha Stewart Show” a few weeks ago to prepare some sort of typical Southern dish, and when he ladled out the grits, the studio audience started applauding.
I don’t know why people think grits are unusual. I do like grits, and you can get grits in New York at some places, not just fancy places. Grits are such a great absorptive substance. The yellow of the eggs and red-eye gravy and stuff. I remember Jerry Clower talking about being served Irish potatoes for breakfast. Explaining grits is sort of like asking an Irishman to explain “potato.” They’re just grits.
I doubt if the marijuana was a surprise to anybody, but how about Willie Nelson also being charged with possession of psilocybin mushrooms a few months ago?
I did a story about Willie for Esquire some years ago, and had a couple of hits of his weed. I don’t know how he functions on that stuff. But he’s always been pretty open about that. Mushrooms? Shit, I’m too old to do stuff like that. But then again, if Willie wants to do psilocybin mushrooms, who am I to tell him no? &